On Wallowing and The Happiness Trap

I’ve done my fair share of wallowing lately. I know I’m not alone. Turns out, it may actually be a good thing and could provide a faster path to greener, non-wallowing, pastures.

Between COVID and burnout and rethinking priorities, it’s been a busy, emotional 18+ months.

In the midst of it all, I’ve been working my way through Russ Harris’ The Happiness Trap…for the third time. During my first two read-throughs (spread out over several years) it just all feel unreachable. Too much to process and implement. But this time has produced more results (a 5% improvement so far – not amazing, but not nothing).

The happiness trap in a nutshell: in our attempt to feel happy and content, we try to avoid or dispel “bad” feelings. But, the harder we try, the worse we usually feel. Our very inattention to these “negative” emotions could be the very thing perpetuating them.

Harris talks about “clean discomfort” – anxiety about a medical issue, anger that you’ve been passed over for a promotion – and “dirty discomfort” – anxiety that you’re anxious about the health complication, guilt that you’re frustrated about being overlooked for the promotion.

The official term for the process he describes is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The acceptance bit is tricky. Harris argues that acceptance is a realistic appraisal of where your feet are and what condition the ground is in. It doesn’t mean that you like being in that spot, or that you intend to stay there. Acceptance is simply, by definition, taking what is offered.

While I don’t want to spend my life wrapped up in long bouts of self-pity, I think wallowing does play an important role. Just letting myself “feel the feelings” is cathartic. I’m (well, at least I’m trying) to stop fighting the emotions so much. Observing their presence, letting them be, and sticking squarely to that “clean discomfort” mode. I don’t have to slap a happy face sticker over every negative feeling that comes my way. I don’t have to justify why something feels hard or sad or confusing. I don’t have to rank my struggle next to someone else’s. I can just evaluate my own emotions based on my own experience.

Harris also suggests the reader imagine that at the back of his/her mind is a “Struggle Switch.” When it’s turned on, we’re going to struggle against any physical or emotional pain that comes our way; whatever discomfort we experience, we’ll see it as a problem and try hard to get rid of it or avoid it. 

I get in this loop all the time. I’ll get anxious about renovations, reach around and flip on that Struggle Switch and then, in addition to the anxiety, I add in guilt (I have no right to feel this way, so many people would love to be in this position) and fear (everything is bound to go wrong) and regret (why did we buy an older home that required structural upgrades). All these secondary emotions are unpleasant, unhelpful, and a drain on my energy and ability to function (read: call the contractor and actually work through the issues instead of just worrying about them).

If our “Struggle Switch” is OFF (I actually now close my eyes and imagine this being a tangible thing on the back of my head), whatever emotion shows up, no matter how unpleasant, we don’t struggle with it. Our anxiety levels are free to rise and fall as the situation dictates.

I don’t know if he’d promote wallowing – I have a feeling he’d use different terminology – but last week I spent an entire day wallowing. Everything felt off. I wanted to fight it and tried for a bit. I toggled that Struggle Switch all morning, telling myself to stop acting like a baby and get it together. Stop making such a big deal about little things, other people are going through much tougher circumstances.

But then:

  • I napped for an hour. The kids were home and I let them run all over the house with their friends, setting up a driveway candy stand (there was some Sharpie on the table and the floor when the dust settled and an umbrella got ripped, but these things happen).
  • I woke up and looked at the wall and wallowed some more. I didn’t want to read a book or take a shower or declutter a closet. So I didn’t.
  • Then I got up and washed my face and sent a flurry of work e-mails that had been on my radar for a month. I didn’t tell the kids I was awake and available (hence the Sharpie and umbrella incidents; oh and one child stole another child’s Mentos).
  • I made a simple supper and did a load of laundry.
  • I showered and blowdried my hair – something I’ve hardly done all summer (the blowdrying part, not the showering) – that gave me a boost the next morning.
  • My hubby and I watched Parks and Rec so I could engage the humour side of my brain.
  • I went to bed early.
  • I woke up and made a coffee, straightened my hair, put on makeup, and walked the kids to daycamp.

Maybe if I hadn’t wallowed – if I’d forced myself to put on a happy face and host a playdate or texted a friend or make a list of 30 things I was grateful for – I’d have come out on the other side on the same timeline. Perhaps. But I suspect it would have been very hard work. Likely I got to the same place in the same amount of time with a lot less collateral damage (there was no yelling, no emotional eating – typical coping mechanisms for me).

So, wallowing, acceptance, or whatever kids are calling it these days, may just be underrated?

I am going to struggle! I’m emotionally wired for anxiety and tension. I’m parenting and working in the midst of a global pandemic. Life happens – wrists break and cars need fixing and friends get sick and renovations stall and go over budget. But fighting it hasn’t worked too well for me in the past.

My finger knows how to flip on that Struggle Switch. I know I’ll do it over and over and over again in the future. But here’s to wallowing and accepting…and moving on.

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